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Published: Saturday, 2/14/2004

Court reverses fetus-disposal ruling

Appellate judges in Toledo ruled yesterday in a case involving the handling of fetuses in a Sandusky hospital.

The court decided that an Erie County hospital does not have to disclose health information to a suing party without first having patient consent.

The decision, which overturned an earlier ruling in Erie County Common Pleas Court, was handed down by the 6th District Court of Appeals. It involved a 1997 class-action lawsuit filed against Firelands Community Hospital.

In the suit, Sandusky residents Libby Walker and Joanna Hayth sought to have the court order the hospital to notify all affected patients about past problems it had regarding the disposal of fetuses on hospital grounds.

In 1996, Firelands Community Hospital made internal changes as ordered by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency after learning one of their hospital employees had stored fetuses at the hospital for up to 12 years.

The employee, who was not identified by hospital officials, kept fetuses in the hospital morgue after they had died in miscarriages or were stillborn. The now-former employee cited religious beliefs for the actions.

Normal procedure for disposing of fetuses less than 20 weeks old is to place them into the hospital incinerator.

In the suit, Ms. Walker said she delivered a stillborn child at Firelands in September, 1990, and Ms. Hayth suffered a miscarriage there in December, 1998.

The lower court previously had ordered the hospital to supply the women with a list of “account and diagnostic codes” used by the hospital in coding medical records. The hospital was ordered to forward to the women and their attorneys the names of patients for whom those codes were used.

The patients were to receive individual notice of the lawsuit by first-class mail. The hospital also was ordered to provide the patients pathology reports.

Attorneys for the women had argued that the class members interest in being apprised of the class action outweighed privacy interests.

But appellate judges said they could “find no countervailing interest in this case that would warrant creating a privilege to disclose confidential information about the class members.”

John Murray, an attorney for Ms. Walker and Ms. Hayth, was traveling yesterday and had not yet seen the decision, a spokesman for his office said. The spokesman said Mr. Murray declined to comment until he had a chance to read the opinion.

Paul Eklund, an attorney for the hospital, didn t return a call seeking comment yesterday.

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